“What is the church?”
How I answer that question has changed drastically over the past few years. I used to think it was the group of people who gather on Sunday mornings and worship together.
When I started working in the inner city, I began to experience “church” as I gathered in abandoned buildings, ate fried chicken and shared prayer requests and praises with my formerly homeless friends. Many of them would never enter a house of worship but they had testimonies of God’s faithfulness that were far more convincing than any I had heard in the sanctuary.
Today, I see church all around me. There is a faithful group of Jesus followers in my neighborhood who gather regularly to pray for our neighborhood. They throw porch parties to help breakdown the racial divide that exists in my neighborhood, they host conversations about racial equity, they share meals together, life together and testify to one another about the goodness of God and the faithfulness of the body. On Sunday morning, they are spread all over the city in houses of worship expressing their love for God in many different fashions. During the week, they are united in their love of neighbor.
There is no one leader, each type of gathering is led by the person who is gifted in and called to that particular conversation. There are no paid staff, no one gathering place, and we don’t have a bill board or post cards inviting people to come, though the door is always open. It is organic, unplanned and certainly an unpredictable movement of the spirit.
Angela and Mother Winfree are gifted intercessors and lead us in prayer twice a month. Anita and her team practice hospitality by hosting regular block gatherings where there is food, fun and fellowship. Brint hosts a monthly conversation about race and community and invites us to go beyond the surface issues facing our community, as well as deal with issues like gentrification, educational inequality and systemic injustice.
I doubt anyone would look at this collection of Jesus followers and call it a church but when I think about The Body of Christ, this is what I think of. These are people working shoulder to shoulder, using the gifts God gave them to be a blessing to their community. For me, that is what church is.
“What is the purpose of the church?”
My answer to this question has also morphed as I have grown as a Christian. I think Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of “The Beloved Community” is the best vision for what the church should strive toward. I don’t think Jesus died solely so that I can live in heaven one day. I think Jesus died so that we could experience a bit of heaven on earth, today. What does heaven on earth look like? It looks like Dr. King’s Beloved Community.
The following quote is from The King Center website:
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
All conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses,
“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
The following excerpt was taken from an article titled, “Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community” by Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr.
King’s was a vision of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life. In his mind, such a community would be the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith.
“The solidarity of the human family” is a phrase he frequently used to express this idea.
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
This was a way of affirming that reality is made up of structures that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that human beings are dependent upon each other. Whatever a person is or possesses he owes to others who have preceded him. As King wrote:
“Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’ “
Recognition of one’s indebtedness to past generations should inhibit the sense of self-sufficiency and promote awareness that personal growth cannot take place apart from meaningful relationships with other persons, that the “I” cannot attain fulfillment without the “Thou.”
In King’s view, the interrelatedness of human existence means that
“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He believed that denial of constitutional rights to anyone potentially violates the rights of all.
His approach to human existence led King to believe that in seeking to eliminate racial injustice, the civil rights movement was making a far larger contribution to the national life. Integration is usually associated solely with the struggle for racial equality, but King conceived of it in a much broader way. He envisioned a future society in which persons would not be malformed as a result of racial hatred or economic exploitation. That is, King was not concerned about justice for blacks as opposed to justice for whites; he was concerned about justice for everyone.
He said in a definitive passage:
“Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness. And though the Kingdom of god may remain not yet as universal reality in history, in the present it may exist in such isolated forms as in judgment, in personal devotion, and in some group life.
Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in his universe. As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it.”